Planning goes against our national character, by Graeme Bell

Sir Peter Hall rushed in grinning broadly. 'Graeme, you must go to Japan. I've just travelled on the latest bullet train and it's brilliant.' Peter was my chairman at the Town and Country Planning Association and I was used to him arriving for meetings hotfoot from Heathrow. However, Japan wasn't on my bucket list, until, that is this spring.

And Peter was right! The bullet trains are amazing. 200 mph, some 16 carriages long, immaculate and keeping time to the second because they run only 3 minutes apart. There is a 2,000 mile high speed network, fully integrated with equally efficient local trains, buses and trams. The staff wear smart uniforms and white gloves, they take immense pride in their service. The guards even salute the trains as they arrive and leave the station. Can you imagine the guards (do they still exist?) doing that at Euston?

This huge investment in infrastructure and people pays dividends. It is a massive boost to both the economy and spatial connectivity. While the UK has frittered away the fruits of its boom years, you can see and touch the planning and investment in Japan. So sophisticated, so valued, so planned. And that’s what the Japanese people demand, a settled framework where everything works reliably (not just their cars) and they can plan their lives with confidence, conformity and cleanliness. On this last point, public conveniences are everywhere with the people leaving them in immaculate condition. And pedestrians will wait patiently at a crossing until the little man goes green, even when there isn’t a car in sight. They are disciplined, valuing strong parameters. Does that sound like us?

In the UK, pedestrians will dash across against the lights if there is the slightest gap in the traffic. Brits don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do, they value personal choice, including making a mess! We haven’t the patience of the Japanese, we want action this day. Is this why planners (as interim TCPA chief executive Dr Hugh Ellis says) are ‘as popular as traffic wardens’? Why planning here is a dirty word?

Post war Britons were prepared to accept the nationalisation of their development rights and a strategic approach to planning their towns. Seventy years on, your average Brit probably feels the planning system has failed them, that they’re not listened to, that their precious green belt is being concreted over and that planners and councillors are the problem not the solution. We are blamed for allowing things, for stopping things and even for things over which we have no control. And doing it very slowly too.

Perhaps we should just face reality; that it isn’t in our national character to be planned. Take, for example the travails of our own High Speed Two. But it’s not just about toilets and trains, it’s the bigger issue that Brits value their freedoms. Should we just give up? Learn to love sushi, use chopsticks and go where we’ll be valued?

Graeme Bell OBE is a past president of the Planning Officers Society 

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